La Dolce Vita: A Trip to the Homeland: Sicilia

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Sea Urchins, along with clams and swordfish, are abundant in Sicilian Markets.
Sea Urchins, along with clams and swordfish, are abundant in Sicilian Markets.

By Pasquale Gianni

Sicily — the crown jewel of the Mediterranean. And it is indeed among the more captivating places I have ever seen: the beauty, the climate, the history, the warmth and animation of the people, and yes, the food. Ok, I must confess: this is not my first time visiting Sicily, nor can I claim to be unbias ed (I trace my roots back to the island where many relatives of mine still reside). And there is perhaps no better place to have family to visit than Sicily, where family is at the core of all things. But my chief concern lies in my fear that I will be unable to convey with words on paper the unimaginable warmth, affection and love I was met with. At the same time, I am left speechless by the cuisine and sheer magnificence of everything I saw and experienced.

In its 2700 year history, the island had been conquered as a key trading port for the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards, just to name a few. And it all shows in the food, the language, the architecture, the genetic makeup and the daily lifestyle. In this way, Sicilians are always Sicilian first and Italian second, as it is a culture unto its own. Sicily is famous for so many things and among them, of course, thanks to Hollywood films and profit seeking media outlets, is ‘The Mafia.’ You can rest assured that this trip did not include any ‘Mafia Tourism.’ This one was about family, unparalleled beauty and food.

Upon my arrival, I was chauffeured around like a young prince by close loved ones of mine who were able to show me around Palermo and treat me to a truly authentic experience. This included unbelievable Arab-influenced street food, which you will find a great deal of in Palermo. After a night at their lovely home, I was whisked away to their enormous farm estate where I roamed among their many sheep, horses and cattle and sampled divine homemade cheeses. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for their feast, which was incredibly difficult for me to resist after I saw the lamb that was being prepared. However, other relatives were anxiously awaiting their turn to see “Il Cugino” (the cousin). My next stop was Corleone, the town made internationally famous by Mario Puzo and The Godfather. It was tranquil, warm and welcoming. I did not refuse any loving offers of affection and food from my generous relatives. This included, of course, fresh meat, arancine, pasta and homemade wine, just for lunch. And for dinner, another feast had been arranged at an Agriturismo with more fresh cheese, olives, mushrooms, pork, pasta and homemade ricotta cheesecake.

Next I went to stay with relatives in Palermo, the city center. In the open air markets, I ate fresh shucked clams, sea urchin and swordfish. My cousin prepared a typical Sicilian lunch for me, consisting of pasta con le sarde (sardines), pasta alla norma (with fresh eggplant, tomato sauce and ricotta), swordfish, caponata, and for dessert, two Sicilian specialties—cannoli and cassata (a ricotta cake). This was followed by a Saturday night out on the town in the ‘Vucceria’ section of Palermo, which is the main strip of night life consisting of bars and pubs lined down a narrow cluster of streets. Young folks imbibe into the wee hours of the morning, snack on delicious street food after catching whiffs of the glorious aroma and scream at each other in the sweet sound of Sicilian dialect. Ironically enough, it lies in the midst of abandoned ruins of buildings that were bombed by allied forces during World War II, which instead of being torn down and repaired, remain as a constant reminder of the history and perseverance of Sicily and the Sicilian people.

Sunday consisted of a trip to Renzo Barbera Stadium to see Palermo vs. AS Roma which, unfortunately for Palermo, did not end well. It was a good game nonetheless, and the fans were crazy, spirited and, above all, devoted. After the game, I took a much necessary trip to Mondello, the beach pier of Palermo, which is lined with luxury beach hotels, spectacular seafood restaurants and mansions. Before my departure I had to stop for brioche con gelato, another Sicilian specialty which consists of an almost ice cream sandwich on a sweet brioche roll. And I know it may be hard to believe, but this trip was less than four days.

Lots of details, I know. But in Sicily it is about the small details — the family, the food, the laughs — that matter most. Sicily will forever have a special place in my heart, constantly running through my thoughts and my veins, but not just because it is the land of my grandparents. Perhaps nowhere else on earth can one find a culture like it: rich and unique, with the various and quite diverse influences at work, with food that people around the world try, unsuccessfully, to replicate, and people with a certain warmth embodied by a never-ending effort to give and serve others. Next time you plan a European vacation, make sure Sicily makes the list, but only if you plan on returning again and again because if you go once, it too will be a part of you forever.